Over the past few weeks, the media has suddenly paid a lot of attention to bullying and suicide among young people, particularly those who identify as LGBT. Tragic stories like those of Seth Walsh, Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, and Billy Lucas in the last month alone seem to be everywhere you turn.
On the left, people have been scrambling to come up with an adequate response. What do you say to a young person who wants to end his or her life because the harassment and abuse that he or she receives is too much to bear? Dan Savages’ heartwarming It Gets Better Project has tried to provide some measure of encouragement and support, and The Trevor Project is receiving some much-needed coverage.
But as well-intentioned and necessary as these reactions might be, it places the burden on the people who are being bullied to cope in some way. Don’t get me wrong, I sat in my pyjamas and watched It Gets Better videos and cried for two hours on my day off earlier this week. I think it serves a great purpose and gives a certain group of people being attacked in a certain way some measure of hope. But right now, I want to take a moment to talk about the concrete steps that at least one state is taking to change some of the conditions that allow bullying to take place.
This summer, the New York State Legislature passed the Dignity for All Students Act, which was signed by Governor David Paterson last month and goes into effect in July 2012. This is an important step in turning New York schools into a safe space for our youth, and creating an environment that does not foster the type of vicious bullying that has contributed to so many of the recent suicides.
Although Dignity for All Students is a bill that was championed by the LGBT community, it’s actually designed to make all students safe from bullying and to provide them with an environment where they can actually learn. The law outlines a comprehensive definition of what qualifies as harassment (“the creation of a hostile environment by conduct or by verbal threats, intimidation or abuse that has or would have the effect of unreasonably and substantially interfering with a student’s educational performance, opportunities or benefits, or mental, emotional or physical well-being”). Note that nowhere in that definition does it limit bullying to what happens on school grounds, but instead takes in the entire environment in which a student is expected to learn.
Dignity for All Students will also require every single school to report harassment to the State, with specific information about whether the victim belonged to a particular group that is protected from discrimination. Notably, this includes not just the State’s standard non-discrimination clause, but also sexual orientation and weight.
Most importantly, Dignity for All Students develops guidelines for teacher training and education in how to recognize harassment and requires school districts to adopt policies that make schools free of harassment and discrimination. It requires that resources are made available to parents about anti-discrimination and harassment policies. It mandates at least one staff member per school trained in counseling to deal with these particular sorts of problems before they get out of hand. And it incorporates sensitivity training into the actual curriculum for New York State students as part of the citizenship curriculum. In this way, Dignity for All Students is not about punishing bullies, but about creating an environment that does not allow bullying to flourish. It does not treat the symptom, but instead attacks the root of the problem.
As a little bit of history for the politically-inclined, youth and LGBT advocates have been trying to pass this law for many, many years. The Assembly passed it several times, and it was only just this year that it even made it to the floor of the State Senate. It was through some hard work and sheer luck that the Democrats had the majority in the Senate to finally push this great piece of legislation through.
The only shame about this law is that it will be two full academic years from now (this one and the next) before it takes effect. That’s to provide school districts time to come into compliance with the new regulation, although, as these news reports tell us, the changes cannot be made too soon. I hope that other states will look to New York’s example and take steps to curb the serious problem of harassment that seems to be happening to young people all over the country.